It's taken a while. London's Olympic Stadium, first proposed in 2003, was supposed to welcome its first permanent tenant two years ago. But the procurement process proved more controversial than expected, and conversion of a venue never meant to be permanent took even longer, so here we are four years after Super Saturday and only now are West Ham moving in. The big day was supposed to be next week, but the machinations of European qualifiers required a home fixture slightly earlier than anticipated, and so it was that NK Domzale turned up last night for a good kicking. Match one, stadium open, game on. [32 photos]
Shifting a football team's home ground isn't something to be taken lightly. West Ham had been at the Boleyn ground in Upton Park since 1904 and were firmly embedded in the local community, plus every fan knew exactly how to get there. But as of August 2016 they need a new route, and a new routine, if they're to make their way to their new seat in the former Olympic bowl. So last night's match wasn't just about reaching the play-off round of the Europa League, it was a first opportunity for supporters to try work out how to get to Stratford, and for the club to start to hone crowd control procedures in a brand new location.
One of the first things some fans spotted last night is just how far away the stadium is from Stratford station. Olympic ticketholders discovered this four years ago, and West Ham weren't slow in advising ticketholders to turn up early. But thousands of fans failed to give themselves enough time to make the journey, perhaps remembering how close Upton Park tube was to the stadium gates, with plenty of time for a pie on the walk down. Not so at Stratford, especially when there's a shopping centre in the way, and a whole squadron of staff with barriers and placards to direct you via the approved route. The approved route avoids the shops, because capitalism must be allowed to continue unfettered before a match, and heads instead down Montfichet Road and up Westfield Avenue (which is to be closed from 4.45pm when there's an evening fixture). You do not want to still be here fifteen minutes before kick off, especially if your turnstile's round the far side of the stadium... but that's a mistake tonight's stragglers will hopefully only make once.
The exterior of the stadium is now partially wrapped with hanging panels, and the club's name has been installed this week along the top rim, improving visibility across the park. I was impressed by the seemingly low-key nature of the police presence and general shepherding, especially given how draconian things could have been in the current climate. Police were stationed as appropriate, for example on horseback at the head of the main footbridge, but the vast majority of staff were private security, drafted in at lower cost and generally smiley. Closer to the stadium a few barriers nudged folk the right way, but generally the existing infrastructure worked as planned and everyone flooded onto Stadium Island without too much hassle. Now that West Ham are ensconced in the stadium they've replaced its permeable perimeter with a solid wall interrupted only by turnstiles and exit gates, the latter decorated with individual words from "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles". And this change in boundary is great news because it means Stadium Island can (finally) be opened up to the public again.
I'm not sure whether this opening up will now be permanent, or whether the barriers will go back in tomorrow now the match is over. It certainly wasn't yet possible to go down a level to the riverside paths, but maybe these are waiting for the 'official' opening day on Sunday. But this is the first time since 2012 that I've been able to wander around the entire outside of the stadium without being challenged, and the first time ever without a ticket. I can confirm that the walk around the outside is still as disorienting as ever, never quite sure which bit of the surrounding park is coming up next, but the ability to walk in and out over all four of the bridges makes traversing the Olympic Park suddenly a whole lot easier. There's also a new set of steps on the Greenway side, making five entrances in all... and thousands of football fans all trying to work out which is theirs and where precisely their designated turnstile might be.
This outer zone was also the location of the food stalls, generally in portable trailers or tents rather than permanent kiosks. Never underestimate the appetite of the football fan arriving at a match post tea-time, and burgers and chips were an especially popular choice. Domino's were selling 9½" pizzas in a box for £8, with potato wedges OR a drink thrown in for a tenner. The going rate for fish and chips was £8.50, in the ubiquitous carton rather than proper wrapping, while a well-known Cornish company had queues almost as long for its large and supersize pasties. While this is nothing unusual for the Olympic Stadium, it's a seachange for West Ham fans who've been used to much more homely fare from shops and vans down Green Street. Those businesses must now make do without matchday trade, as the responsibility of catering for the masses transfers to approved concessions only, and a blander (but more varied) offering all round.
Two new landmarks have been added to the outer promenade since the Games, one an extensive pavement of personalised tiles called Champions Place. Several people were working their way across row by row trying to spot the tiny message they'd paid for, some in memoriam, others affirming their true Hammerness in forty characters or less. Much more obvious, high above head height, is the reappearance of 2012's Olympic Bell. This mighty instrument, still inscribed with its line from The Tempest rather than some football-related slogan, is a wonderfully evocative reminder of the start of the Opening Ceremony, but don't expect to see the giant clapper deployed except on extremely rare occasions. Its concrete support also provides somewhere to sit - a facility markedly absent from the remainder of the perimeter.
My word, the West Ham crowds are very different to the international spectators who flocked here an Olympiad ago. They're very blokey, very former East End, though now as likely to be living in Essex as some outer London borough. A goodly proportion are in claret and blue, and a fair number closely shorn and slightly round, with geezerish banter and the odd burst of effing for good measure. But also clearly delighted to be here, at the start of another season filled with dreams, as evidenced by the wide-eyed sons trailing beside their fathers, and the groups of lads who were wide-eyed sons back in Upton Park a few seasons ago. Friends and families took the opportunity to explore outside before their security patdown, and queued in large numbers for the official programme and 'Goodbye Boleyn' souvenir. Indeed in places the queues for programmes and the queues for the turnstiles made progress around the stadium quite tricky, specifically at the main pouring-in point close to the Aquatic Centre.
Other entrances are rather quieter, indeed those who had the nous not to walk in direct from Stratford seemed to enjoy a less frenetic arrival. They came from Hackney Wick, they came from the Copper Box and they came from the DLR station, in the latter case in direct contravention of advice. West Ham's official access map states that Pudding Mill Lane "will not be available on matchdays until January 2017", being "subject to construction activity", although in Thursday's case the station was open and being used by a small number of fans in the know, for relatively simple access. The View Tube has duly spotted the opportunity this routing provides, establishing a small food village on matchdays outisde on the Greenway, marked by claret flags, although the half dozen outlets present won't have sold out this time, indeed probably won't have sold much at all.
So it really is all change, as a multi-million pound business extracts itself from E13 and establishes new roots in E20. I hadn't realised the full extent of what this might mean until I got back to Bow Road and noticed that my local pub suddenly had barriers outside and two security guards at the door, just in case fans chose to arrive or depart via the District line and make this a favoured watering hole. Not this week they haven't. But an entire footballing culture has suddenly shifted two miles west, and residents, shoppers and local businesses are going to have to readjust. Oh and West Ham won three nil, that's four two on aggregate - a properly auspicious start, but I'm sure you didn't come here for a match report.